Helping kids cope with pressure

Participation in youth sports has increased over the years, as has a trend for kids to specialize in a single sport at a young age. While participation in sports has a great deal of positive outcomes, such as learning discipline, teamwork, and perseverance, it can also result in young athletes feeling pressured and overwhelmed by rigorous training schedules and the perceived pressure to perform. Sometimes young athletes feel so much pressure that they lose their enjoyment of the sport and feel mentally and emotionally exhausted.

There are some things that parents can do to minimize the amount of pressure put on their young athletes of all levels. Parents should remain a source of unconditional support. It is typical for parents to take great pride in their children’s athletic achievements and also to grieve along with them when things don’t go well. It is important, however, that parents don’t let their behaviors put unintentional pressure on young athletes by placing too much importance on winning. For example, if parents praise their children for effort and attitude, it is more likely that the young athlete will think of success as being defined by the process of their development, rather than the outcome. Try to take a somewhat neutral stance so you can be a sounding board for your child to come to you with their feelings. For example, let your child talk first after a game and ask questions about how they are feeling rather than expressing your own feelings. Listen without judgment and let them know you value them as a whole person, regardless of wins or losses.

It is also important to help young athletes maintain balance in their lives. Admittedly, this can be very difficult with the demanding athletic schedules, particularly of elite level athletes. Try to encourage your children to maintain a social life outside of the team and, if possible, to participate in other hobbies, as well. Continue to affirm them for their efforts in activities outside of sport such as academics, family responsibilities, and other activities such as music or art. It is important that their identities not be limited to being only an athlete. This will help them maintain perspective and cope with the disappointments and setbacks that they will inevitably encounter. Help your children view these setbacks as a way to gain skills such as perseverance and resilience that will help them succeed in sport and in all aspects of life.

Giving and Receiving Feedback

At home, at school, or on the field, parents, teachers, and coaches often provide you with feedback. Feedback, put simply, is information about your performance. Information can be provided in the form of challenging feedback or criticism. Criticism focuses on blaming someone and may discourage or overwhelm the recipient, as he/she could take it personally. Hearing criticism could lower a player’s confidence because the player might feel attacked or exposed, rather than challenged and motivated.

Challenging feedback, on the other hand, can be instructive and effective. It is specific, clear, and non-judgmental. It should address the pros and cons of performance. It should provide information about not only what is being done well, but also what could be improved. Aim to provide feedback that builds confidence, makes the recipient feel challenged and motivated, and highlights areas for improvement in a clear, non-judgmental way.

For example, instead of saying “bad shot,” or “better luck next time,” give specific advice that challenges the recipient to improve. A suggestion may be, “good try but your shot was late. Next time, take one touch, not two. Let’s see you try”. This helps the player understand what needs improvement and why, and has concrete ideas about how to implement the proper technique and improve.

Releasing emotions

Emotions are “powerful forms of live, potent energy, and they have the greatest impact upon the harmony of the whole self” states Christopher Andersonn in his book, Will You Still Love Me If I Don’t Win? If you keep this emotional energy bottled up, or if you release it in an unproductive way, it could potentially have a negative affect on you.

Often children involved in sports experience a lot of emotional stress, due to the pressure to win and/or meet expectations and they are not sure how to deal with it properly. So, instead of dealing with it they just ignore it. This stress could cause them to loose interest in their sport. Fear, shame, humiliation, rejection, control, and emotional abuse in regard to their sport build up inside them until they are at a point of exploding. Generally, because parents are important role models for their children, the way parents deal with their emotions is the way the child will deal with his/her emotions.

Parents should learn to release their emotions in a healthy way and actively help their children do the same. A very helpful technique for release is visualization. Andersonn believes that visualization is the most important form of release. Visualization is the act of imagining situations so that you are able to plan your ideal reaction. An instance in which one can use visualization is to practice emotional release. Using visualization allows you to imagine instances where you have not released, or at least not properly released, your emotions and practice the proper release in your mind. The first step is to relax and imagine the event that is causing the emotional stress. Play it back in your mind like a movie, only change the scene so that you are releasing all the emotions you feel. Playing these situations in your mind like a movie allows you to practice your ideal responses; over time, these visualized responses could become actual responses. If you use visualization as a tool to practice the proper release of emotions, it can be an incredible asset that helps you become a stellar role model for you child and teach your child how to release stressful emotions and cope appropriately. The ability to release emotions and cope with stress can be valuable to a player’s ability to perform at his/her best.

Andersonn, C. & Andersonn, B. (2000). Will You Still Love Me If I Don’t Win? Dallas, TX: Taylor Publishing Company.

What’s really going on with the adolescent brain?

Why is it that parents and coaches often can’t understand the decisions adolescents make? It could be because the growth and development of the brain is not complete until well into adulthood. During adolescence, the areas of the brain that govern decision-making, impulse control, and planning are not fully developed. This is one explanation as to why adolescents do things that parents and coaches simply can’t understand; they do not use the same cognitive processes that adults use because they do not have the same brains. Further, adolescent brains are fine-tuning their synapses and connections between brain tissues. This is crucial, as this process, known as synaptic pruning, is dependent upon the environment; connections used most often are strengthened while those hardly used are weakened.

One major implication of this information is that adolescence is an opportunity to shape the development of the brain. It is a time for learning, social development, and creativity. Parents and coaches must provide an environment in which adolescents can thrive and grow. They must foster an atmosphere that encourages creativity and curiosity and reinforces productive behaviors to help those behaviors stick. Rather than punishing or trying to change adolescent behaviors, talk things through. Help young people develop their skills for decision-making, planning, and inhibiting inappropriate behaviors, to name a few. For example, coaches should support players taking smart risks during training that help players challenge themselves and develop, and they should give productive instruction to players if the risks don’t pay off.

Overall, the most important message is to be understanding and accepting and to know that the young men and women parents and coaches interact with on a regular basis are still growing and maturing in a very important way. So, when these young men and women do or say things that boggle adult minds, remember that they’re wired differently. Give it time.

Athletic Parenting Styles

What type of sports parent are you? Below are different types of parents and characteristics describing each one.

1) The Parent as a Source of Pressure

a. Gives instructions during competitions or training
b. Criticizes your children’s performance
c. Presses for more effort
d. Shows disappointed
e. Shouts at your child
f. Presses your child to compete even if they are injured
g. Has arguments with your child
h. Insults and comments negatively about your child’s opponents

2) The Under-Involved Parent

a. You show little interest in your child’s athletic career
b. You rarely attend your child’s athletic competitions
c. Children have a limited bond with the family
d. Children look for another environment where they are accepted
e. The sport environment becomes a refuge away from the indifferent family environment

3) The Parent as a Source of Support

a. Has moderate involvement in your child’s athletic life
b. Gives your child independence and space to move
c. Facilitates but doesn’t interfere
d. Has a positive influence by respecting your child’s efforts and not being over-demanding, pressing or overly critical
e. Helps your child get the most out of athletic experiences
a. Supports and encourages without pressing

Research into parenting styles has revealed that supportive parents are most successful in promoting player development and performance. In addition to what is mentioned above, supportive parents understand and support the values and lessons inherent in sport participation. They also communicate with their child about athletic strategy in a nonthreatening manner. As a result, athletes of supportive parents enjoy their participation in sports, suffer from lower levels of anxiety, feel their parents’ respect and love, and are least likely to drop out of sports prematurely. Furthermore, Lee (2003) identified successful parents by their ability to detach emotionally from their child’s athletic experience. Accordingly, it is essential that parents constantly monitor and assess their own behaviors and attitudes related to their child’s athletic experience.

Lee, M. (Ed.). (2003). Coaching Children in Sports (2nd ed.). New York: Taylor & Francis Group.